Found in translation

Kirk - Surfside, Florida
Entered on February 24, 2009

I believe in communication, in the power of language to resolve conflicts, cure ills, and set things straight. And I recognize this may sound funny coming from someone who doesn’t like to talk on the phone and spends most of his working hours alone in silence.

I also believe that communication across languages is at once impossible and essential. Robert Frost is famously quoted as saying “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” There’s certainly some truth in that, but where would we be without translations of the Old and New Testaments, Homer, Lao Tzu, Plato, Euclid, the Quran, Dante, or Copernicus, among many others.

More specifically, I believe in the potential for communication across languages. You see, I’m a translator.

I’ve been working for over 20 years as a professional translator and interpreter. I’ve translated books, poems, treaties, laws, contracts, and annual reports, and have interpreted in business negotiations, courthouses, hospitals, and recording studios. I’ve seen how a good interpreter can help bring parties together to close deals, even when they start off screaming at each other. I’ve seen how unqualified interpreters can put a defendant’s freedom or even life at risk in a courtroom or doctor’s office. I’ve translated documents that have contributed to newfound prosperity in developing countries, and have fixed translations so poorly done that they have cost companies millions. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that words really can make a difference and that communication across languages and cultures, despite its inherent difficulties, really matters.

Translation and interpreting are hard work: not just replacing words in one language with words in another. It’s more mysterious than that: you read or hear something in a foreign language, process it, understand every detail and nuance, and then become the author or speaker and recreate it in your native language, painstakingly capturing and recasting all those fine points, sometimes while the other person is still speaking. When you do your best work, few ever notice. Becoming that other person is the hard part, arguably impossible. Beyond the words, you have to understand where they’re coming from and where they’re going, and no matter what languages you work with, problems always arise. Expressions like “Joe six-pack,” “drinking from the fire hose,” and “tipping point” aren’t always transparent and may not have ready equivalents in a foreign language.

Translators and interpreters also shoulder enormous responsibilities. Mistakes can be costly, to clients, companies, or countries. International incidents have been caused, millions of dollars lost, and lives dramatically altered all because of translation mistakes. But not translating or interpreting may have its own costs in terms of lost opportunities.

At this point in our planet’s history, whether we like it or not, we are all global citizens. Few of us have not been touched by something from elsewhere, and our ability to understand each other is paramount to our continued coexistence. If we don’t translate, we aren’t even trying.

Yes, communication across languages and cultures is hard—maybe even impossible. No translation is ever perfect, but a translation well done can make a monumental difference in bringing two people who otherwise cannot communicate closer to mutual understanding.

And for me, that’s one step toward making the world a better place.